By Michael DiGregorio | Photos by Daniel Wakefield Pasley
To call Paris-Roubaix a race is to reduce Jacques Mesrine—the French version of Scarface and an arch prankster—to the ranks of a petty hood.
Famously described as “a rodeo…where everything trembles” and “the last great madness in cycling,” Paris-Roubaix is equal parts beauty and chaos. It is also essential, indomitable Gaul, where one literally tastes the soil.
What unfolds along La Pascale—the Easter Race’s 258-kilometer route—is a cold fusion of cycling archeology and epic agony. It is a conflict diamond that shows little to no regard for human dignity.
In its nascent days, the Queen of the Classics crossed France’s coal-mining region. Raked by freezing rain, hail and occasional snow, those early, two-wheeled acrobats would carry a mounting burden of mud, cinder and coal dust throughout the event.
From routes forever churned by farm machinery, Paris-Roubaix forges over rutted tracks left over from World War I. From beet fields and broad plains, it surges through killing fields where 9 million perished.
And on to those fabled stones. These rectangular ‘Belgian blocks’ are the physical foundation of the event’s psychological tribulations. Marked as much by broken forks as broken spirits, these segments of pavé are the most technical, storied sections of Paris-Roubaix.
At the end, the rider who triumphs will raise a chunk of it in both hands in homage to a singular cycling monument.